Why are journalists so worried about criminalising defamation?


Refer to the story, Govt seeks harsher punishment for defamation (The New Times, November 29, 2017).

Methinks media people protest too much. For there to be defamation (slander when it is verbal and libel when it is written), the defamer must know that the relevant communication is false, and makes it with a deliberate intent to harm the defamed person’s reputation.

Are they trying to shield from legal jeopardy people who go out of their way to make what they know are false smears against others with the express intent of damaging those other people’s reputation. For, if this is their intent they will find very little public sympathy. What an anti-defamation law does is to put media people on notice: Ensure you do a good job of verifying the facts you report on, or have good arguments to prove that any reputation-damaging communication you made in error were in fact made in good faith as you were convinced about their veracity. We cannot accept that those with access to media think they have a license to damage innocent people’s good names Willy-nilly without consequence.

Mwene Kalinda


How about those who use anti-defamation law to muzzle the press? False smears is unprofessional. Those involved should not be allowed to practice. There is no debate about that. Decriminalising defamation is good for responsible journalism which is what Rwanda would like to achieve, I want to believe.



To prove defamation, the onus would be on the prosecution to prove that the accused had used false allegations with intent to damage/destroy the reputation/character of the person(s) defamed. There is thus a clear line of defence for the accused to argue that, even if the allegations turned out not to be truthful, and that they hurt the reputation/good name of the subject, there was in fact no intent as the accused relied unavailable information in good faith, even if it subsequently turned out not to have been reliable. The important thing is that media people should not be muzzled, but neither should they willynilly think they can just bismirch people’s reputation without consequences. There is a good balance of discouraging irresponsible muckraking without preventing proper investigative journalism to keep government/public officials accountable. This is a necessary and very valuable tension.

Note I am not a government official, but I have a highly developed sense of what should be just and fair. And giving the media a free hand to smear innocent people without fear of consequences does not strike me as fair. By the way, even doctors, whose work saves lives, literally, are subject to personal liability for professional malpractice. Why should journalists and their media colleagues think they are more special than people who have our lives in their hands? Let them stop their special pleading; their rights necessarily end where other people’s begin.


Under the draft Penal Code that’s under consideration in the Chamber of Deputies, the Government is seeking to maintain defamation as a criminal offence and toughen penalties, with many lawmakers in favour of this proposal. However, journalists have criticised the move, instead calling for decriminalisation of defamation altogether. They say slander and libel should be handled under the existing self-regulatory mechanism – Editor.